Mired in controversy, U.S. rocket blasts off on secret mission

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An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday with a classified satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. Five minutes after the 9:09 a.m. EDT/13:09 GMT launch, rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, shut down its live webcast under a prearranged news blackout ordered by the U.S. military. While the mission unfolds under a veil of secrecy, the future of the Atlas 5 launcher is getting wide public view. Potential rival Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) filed a lawsuit last month to attempt to end ULA’s exclusive right to sell launch services to the U.S. military. In its lawsuit, SpaceX also questioned whether the Atlas rocket’s Russian-made RD-180 engine violated economic sanctions that the United States imposed to punish Russia for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. A U.S. federal judge slapped a temporary injunction on the engine sales but then lifted it a few days later after U.S. Treasury and State Department officials said no specific sanctions appeared to have been violated. The reprieve lasted less than a week. Russia, stung by U.S. export bans, countered with a ban of its own on sales of rocket engines that would be used to launch U.S. military satellites. So far, the United States has received no official word that the engine sales will stop, General William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Command, told reporters at a Space Foundation conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week. More via Reuters.

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